Sunday, January 16, 2011

Mission Blue in the Gulf of Mexico: ocean exploration is no walk in the park

The ocean is an incredible laboratory for studying the complex intricacies of life itself. From the sea all life first came, so what better to place to learn. But it's not exactly a controlled environment where men and women in starched white lab coats can measure, test, and analyze in sterile, secure labs. No, out in the elements, it can be a challenging place where not all goes according to plan.

Dr. Sylvia Earle's Mission Blue organization knows this first hand as they have been attempting to study the after effects of the 2010 Gulf Oil Spill. It has been an expedition of successes and frustrations, but that is nothing new to anyone who has spent time on the seas.

There are many unanswered questions regarding the Gulf Oil Spill. Where has all of the millions of gallons of oil settled? Dissipated, evaporated, or consumed by bacteria and other microorganisms? Has it settled into the deep sea floor and is this having an impact on the many small bottom-dwelling forms of sealife that make an important foundation in the marine ecology. What of the many fish, like whale sharks and bluefin tuna, that migrate through the Gulf or use it as a primary breeding ground? Has there been an impact on them or their eggs or other larvae?

The list goes on and on.

"Speaking as a scientist," said Mission Blue researcher Eric Hoffmayer, "this oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico sort of caught us off guard. We don't know a lot about many of these animals. Whether it's whale sharks, tiger sharks, makos, whatever, we don't know what their habitat use is in the region. We don't have the baseline data. Without understanding how they use this environment, we don't know how the spill will affect them."

Ups and Downs

The Mission Blue expedition, supported by National Geographic, the Waitt Institute, and Dr. Earle's Hope Spots LLC, has been in the Gulf several times over the past few months. It has had great success in tracking down whale sharks that have been known to congregate in an area named Ewing Bank, off of Louisiana. This location is in relatively close proximity to the site of the spill. By tagging and tracking the sharks, in addition to studying the condition of the food sources that the sharks are living on as they pass through the area, researchers hope to gain some insight as to whether the oil has had an adverse impact on these huge filter feeders.

Mission Blue's latest expedition to the Gulf was planned as an opportunity to study marine life on the deep seafloor using the advanced ROV, Medusa, and travel throughout the water column, assessing the health of the openwater community using the two-man submersible, Deepworker. While the Medusa had several successful initial dives, using its red-lit video camera systems (red light, which fades quickly with depth, is less disturbing to deep water marine life as they are less sensitive to it), later dives were scrubbed due to rough seas.

Those wind-whipped seas continued to play havoc with a series of planned dives using the Deepworker submersible. A few dives were completed in shallow water, where Dr. Earle and Harte Research Institute director Larry McKinney had to contend with poor visibility - lots of phytoplankton to see up close but "big picture" views of the surrounding open water seascape were limited at best. As the expedition is drawing to a close, famed author and ecologist Dr. Carl Safina came aboard to share his experiences, having spent considerable time in the Gulf during the spill, and to hopefully get some dives in himself.

Perseverance in the face of challenging conditions is a fundamental requirement of ocean exploration. And if we are to understand the full ramifications of our actions on complex marine ecosystems with regards to oil drilling at sea, expeditions like that being undertaken by Mission Blue and other organizations will endure what nature throws their way and they will continue. The answers to so many questions must be found before we find ourselves faced with another environmental disaster; the result of our own ignorance.

Read about tracking whale sharks in the Gulf in NatGeo News Watch.
Read about Mission Blue's ROV and submersible in the SEA blog.

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